What Makes a Jewish Poet?

Two New Collections Offer Variety of Intriguing Answers

Bloom of Poetry: Harold Bloom once asserted that there could be no major Jewish poet in English, because no Jewish poet could get close enough to his or her Protestant forebears.
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Bloom of Poetry: Harold Bloom once asserted that there could be no major Jewish poet in English, because no Jewish poet could get close enough to his or her Protestant forebears.

By Stephen Burt

Published March 17, 2014, issue of March 21, 2014.

(page 3 of 3)

Nor is Stonestreet alone in relying on humor. Charles Bernstein became famous in the 1980s for his prankishly difficult, frustrating avant-garde poetry. Jennifer Michael Hecht, who wrote a whole book of poems about jokes, riffs on the one whose punchline is “I sent three boats.” Anomalous among all the clear, short, personal poems is Stephen Paul Miller’s twenty-page comedic narrative, “There’s Only One God and You’re Not It.”

Ager and Silverman favor a democratic accessibility, both in selecting so many poets, and in which poets they chose. (Readers of the Forward may be surprised not to see Adam Kirsch; I missed David Caplan, Ben Friedlander, Rachel Hadas, Aaron Shurin, Marsha Pomerantz and Craig Morgan Teicher — all of whom may have been asked.) Headnotes highlight the contributors’ Jewish lives. Some point to other accomplishments: Rachel Barenblat, for example, is also the blogger known as the Velveteen Rabbi. Other headnotes omit relevant facts: Yehoshua November’s does not say that he is hasidic and devout, nor does Esther Schor’s tell us that she wrote a biography of Emma Lazarus. The casual, talky quality seems less a Jewish quality than reflective of much contemporary verse, or at least the verse that Ager and Silverman most often see. Most of these poets make prose sense; some could be memoirs.

Others make stranger demands. Finkelstein’s own austere “Allegory of the Song,” for example, sees poetry as “the stateless one, begging and bluffing,” an eternal refugee that “is not quite a person”; its “losses were tallied long ago.” The Jewish poem there stands for Jewish styles of thought — always investigating, never satisfied — and for the unfulfilled promise of Jewish history, all too aware of what it must run from, arguing over what it can run towards. Right at the end of the “Bloomsbury” alphabet, Matthew Zapruder concludes his poem “Aglow” inconclusively, in multiplicity, as inquiries about what makes a poetry Jewish ought to conclude: with “hidden pleasure,” “in search of the question/ that might make you ask me one in return.”

Geoffrey Hartman was born too early (in 1929) to appear in “The Bloomsbury Anthology,” but he, too, belongs with the traditions that it collects. Hartman, who taught for decades at Yale, retains at least three towering reputations, as a great interpreter of the romantic poets, as a literary theorist, and now as curator, interpreter and director for Yale’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. Hartman is also a writer of serious poetry, almost all of it linked to Jewish thought.

Even when his poems acquire contemporary settings, Hartman speaks for biblical figures, starting with Abraham, moving on to the prophets (“Let him be called/ Ichabod, for the Glory departed”), and jarringly importing “Ahasuerus” from ancient Persia to a landscape that can only be seen as post-Holocaust.

If many of Ager and Silverman’s poets hew too closely to conversational, contemporary English, Hartman can wander too far in the other direction. Seeking the prophetic, he can wind up merely unidiomatic: “You that would mysticate, pity me, shun his fate!” His poetry works well when least vaunting, able to speak for modern disillusion: Appalled by “A Holy City” that must be Jerusalem, Hartman sees there “enough blows to unlock the eastern gate,” “enough hills to slaughter your only sons.” What is best in Hartman’s poetry might be its awareness of the multiple traditions, the multiple arguments — about the land of Israel, about vision and revelation, about the status of English and Hebrew and free verse and meter — in which it cannot help but participate.

If you want recent poets who have not only joined but also guided those arguments, you can look to Rich or to Pinsky, to Bernstein or to Grossman, or to the recent book-length projects of Finkelstein. You might also look to John Hollander, Bloom’s and Hartman’s longtime colleague at Yale, and the one who — so Bloom said in print — came closest to the greatness Bloom pronounced impossible. Bloom praised Hollander’s book-length sequence “Spectral Emanations,” modeled on the seven-branched menorah. Other readers prefer Hollander’s uncommonly learned comic poetry, with its puns in Hebrew, Yiddish, French, Greek, Latin, English, its knowledge of theology, of allegory, of stage routines. Hollander’s “Cohen on the Telephone” is a tour de force of double meanings: playing on Hebrew bat kol, ) Hollander says that the poetic voice

is Ben Cole, the son of your voice,
Questioning along the deep cables,
Sad and nasal even in his yeas.
And once connected to chaos, then
What engulfs you is the babbling of
The multitude of your descendants
Who clamor for a hearing now, not
Then, begetting echoes of themselves…
The next voice you hear will be your own.

Stephen Burt is a poet, critic and professor at Harvard University. His latest book is “Belmont” (2013).

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